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Farewell, Neal Barrett Jr.

Texas' sci-fi, fantasy, and crime author passes
Richard Whittaker, 1:30pm, Tue. Jan. 14
Photo by John Anderson
Farewell, Neal Barrett Jr: The man of Texas letters and lion of slipstream fiction passes, aged 84

A sad and somber day for Texas literature: Neal Barrett Jr,, one of the pioneers of slipstream fiction, has passed away at age 84.

Born in San Antonio in 1929, Barrett's six-decade career stretched from pulp under pseudonyms to movie adaptations, but it was his novels and short stories – gritty yet mystical, like two-fisted zen Buddhism – that made him an icon to many genre fans. In 2010, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him author emeritus, showing his value to and impact on the medium. Books like Interstate Dreams and The Hereafter Gang established him as a member of the slipstream movement, pioneered by Bruce Sterling and Barrett's close friend Joe Lansdale.

Barrett described his style of writing as "the school of leaving things out. I'll tell you enough to let you finish, and guess what's going on, but not to be frustrated or say 'I don't understand all this.'"

But for many Texas writers and readers, what they will most remember about Barrett is his warmth, friendliness, and openness, as well as his support for other authors and his appreciation of his audience.

A personal note: I met Neal in November 2012. Rather than the rugged frontiersman of his publicity head shot, he was a charming, frail, but still brilliant elder gentleman of letters. It took a few months to run the interview, but it remains one of my favorite pieces I have written – because Neal was such a pleasure to spend time with. His South Austin home was covered in books he had written and read, photos of his travels, and the flowers in his yard. His wife Ruth offered me an ice-cold root beer, and we talked about the nature of his books and the changes in the publishing industry.

"Mostly what we do is right here, with the cats and the fish," he told me. Yet the reality is that, while he had entered semi-retirement as a writer, he was still working, still publishing, embracing e-publishing and small presses, with a major anthology of his short stories, Other Seasons, coming out last year.

When we talked, Neal told me about a story he had written about his experience on the day President John F. Kennedy died. It turned out that, even though they had never met, he and Ruth were both working downtown in Dallas that day. He wondered whether the Chronicle might be interested in running it as part of our 50th anniversary coverage. The story, 11/22, for me was the crowning part of that issue.

For more on Barrett's life and works, see "A Double Shot of Wry," Nov. 28, 1997.

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